The San Francisco Film Society’s Hong Kong Cinema Festival offerings this year includes an incredibly moving work from the director of the charming lesbian romance “All About Love.” Veteran director Ann Hui’s new film is her multiple award-winning contemporary drama “A Simple Life,” a far different tale of love and commitment.
Ah Tao (Deanie Ip in an amazing performance) has served four generations of the family of film producer Roger (Andy Lau). A stroke forces Ah Tao to finally retire and move into an old age home. Rather than unconcernedly leaving his old maid to await death, Roger repays Ah Tao’s sacrifices by taking care of her.
The changing relationship between Ah Tao and Roger does provide the emotional heart of Susan Chan and Roger Lee’s script. But Hui wants viewers to look past the sentimentality of one man’s individual kindness and notice how neglect, abandonment, and exploitation is far more common in society’s treatment of the elderly. Ah Tao may have what her old age home considers great accommodations. But her room’s visibly cracked ceiling and the communal filthy coed bathrooms makes one fear to ask what worse accommodations look like.
Deanie Ip’s amazing performance captures Ah Tao’s vitality so well that when her character’s body is paralyzed by strokes, it becomes difficult to watch the screen. Ip and Lau’s scenes together prove a marvel of life returning in dire circumstances.
Sharp-eyed Hong Kong film aficionados will spot Anthony Wong as a comically thuggish hustler and cameos by directors Tsui Hark and Sammo Hung.
Hui’s skillful naturalistic direction has no need of didacticism to make her film’s ultimate thematic points. Merely showing Ip’s skill at finding great pleasure in seeing sunlight through tree leaves or being briefly reunited with her character’s beloved cat indicts Hong Kong society for what it’s failed to provide.
Like Hui, director Gilitte Pik Chi Leung has made a feature film about Hong Kong’s changing attitudes towards LGBT sexuality. Leung’s debut feature “Love Me Not” differs from Hui’s more high-profile film in drawing from a different visually stylistic palette.
Childhood friends Aggie and Dennis have deepened their emotional ties in adulthood. Not only are the duo friendly roommates, but Aggie is a lesbian while Dennis is gay. Yet their relationship starts coming undone when Dennis’ plan to fake a marriage arouses Aggie’s jealousy. Can the two friends love each other without compromising their sexual orientation?
Leung’s simple story provides the framework for some intriguing exercises in visual storytelling. Aggie’s cascade of memories of her 2004 relationship with an ex-lover who shaped her life gives meaning to the impact of accumulating small emotional moments. Leung also captures the gay club scene’s attractive and alienating aspects.
The film makes clear that its characters’ problems arise out of their personalities, not their being gay or lesbian. Dennis, for example, treats commitment as confirming that his age makes him less sexually desirable.
Where Leung’s film falls disastrously short is in providing something beneath its low-budget technical cleverness and hip attitudes. Resolving Aggie’s and Dennis’ relationship never seems to matter.
For at least one viewer, “Love Me Not” turns out to be the critical equivalent of a “Kick Me” sign.
A far more interesting independent Hong Kong film is Fruit Chan’s nihilistic “Made In Hong Kong.” This film is part of a cinematic celebration marking 15 years since the establishment of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.
Autumn Moon (Sam Lee) believes he’s above the limited life options of his slum neighborhood. Yet Moon does little more than collect debts for local gangster Wing. Two girls soon become objects of Moon’s obsession: the slowly dying Ping and the successful suicide Susan Hui. Moon’s impoverished life steadily worsens. But is Susan Hui’s ghost truly responsible?
Moon makes a fascinating antihero. His lack of ideas or desire to better his life symbolizes the former British colony’s anxieties about being returned to China. The school dropout’s gun dance seems less a celebration of criminal career advancement and more a commingling of violence and sexual potency.
Chan renders the film’s slum setting in unsentimental images. The apartment complex Moon lives in looks alienating and dilapidated. The hallways of Moon’s building feel little more than settings for skateboarding-by stabbings. It’s perhaps symbolic of Moon’s unrealized despair that his two most significant relations involve girls touched by death.
“Made In Hong Kong” skillfully balances its gritty visual immersion with occasional moments of unexpected beauty such as the jump rope scene. In the end, though, monolithic poverty feels far stronger than optimistic naivete.
Viewers seeking a more genre-oriented Hong Kong film should turn to Roy Chow Hin Yeung’s crime thriller “Nightfall.”
Famed opera singer Han Tsui’s body is discovered burned and scarred beyond obvious recognition. Inspector George Lam (a nicely grizzled Simon Yam) suspects the culprit is recently released mute ex-convict Eugene Wong (Nick Cheung). As Lam works against time to unravel the high-profile crime, unexpected relationships are discovered which stretch beyond the antagonism between Wong and Tsui.
Cheung makes his prime suspect a pillar of mute menace. When his character watches women crossing through a busy Hong Kong intersection, Cheung’s look and Yeung’s direction makes Wong’s unspoken wishes feel skin-crawling.
Yam’s obsessed but highly flawed cop provides a perfect foil for Cheung’s character. Lam’s own obsessions have destroyed his family life. His mania for seeking truth rather than accepting short-term expediency has ruined his career prospects.
An amazing fight in an aerial cable car is one of “Nightfall”’s several pleasures. Miniscule English subtitles still distract, though.
(“A Simple Life” screens September 23, 2012 at 1:30 PM. “Love Me Not” screens on September 21, 2012 at 4:30 PM. “Made in Hong Kong” screens September 22, 2012 at 1:30 PM. “Nightfall” screens September 21, 2012 at 9:45 PM. All screenings take place at New People Cinema, located at 1746 Post Street, SF. For advance tickets, go to www.sffs.org